Leopold II’s rule over the Congo was a horror story with a body count on par or even more than that of Hitler’s, so why haven’t more people heard of him?
Belgium is not the first European country we think of when we hear the words “blood-soaked tyranny.” Historically, the little country has always been more famous for beer than epic crimes against humanity.
But there was a time, at the peak of European imperialism in Africa, when Belgium’s King Leopold II ran a personal empire so vast and cruel, it rivaled – and even exceeded – the crimes of even the worst 20th century dictators.
King Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the deaths and mutilation of 10 million Congolese Africans during the late 1800’s. The spoils of modern day Belgium owes much to the people of the Congo River Basin.
The European colonization of Africa
was one of the greatest and swiftest conquests in human history. In 1870 roughly 80 percent of Africa south of
the Sahara Desert was governed by indigenous kings, chiefs, and other rulers.
By 1910 nearly this entire huge expanse had become European colonies or land, like South Africa, controlled by white settlers. The bloodiest single episode in Africa’s colonization took place in the center of the continent in the large territory, known as the Congo.
For centuries African slave dealers had raided parts of this area, selling their captives to American and European captains who sailed Africa’s west coast, and to traders who took slaves to the Arab world from the continent’s east coast.But heat, tropical diseases, & the huge rapids near the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic had long kept the Congo’s interior a mystery to Europeans. From 1874 through 1877 the British explorer and journalist Henry M. Stanley
(1841–1904) crossed Africa from east to west.
Although Stanley is best known as the man who found Livingstone, his trip across the Congo basin was the greater feat of exploration and had far more impact on history. As he headed back to England, Stanley was assiduously courted by King Leopold II of Belgium.
Leopold had ascended to the throne in 1865. A man of great charm, intelligence, ruthlessness, and greed, he was openly frustrated with inheriting the throne of such a small country, and in doing so at a time when European kings were rapidly losing power to elected parliaments.
He had long wanted a colonial empire, and in Stanley he saw someone who could secure it for him. The Belgian cabinet of the day was not interested in colonies. But for Leopold this posed no problem; he would acquire his own.In 1879 Stanley returned to the Congo as Leopold’s agent. He built outposts and a road around the river’s rapids and, using small steamboats, he traveled up and down the great river and its tributaries.
Combining gift-giving with a show of military force, he persuaded hundreds of illiterate African chiefs, most of whom had little idea of the terms of the agreement to which they were ostensibly acceding, to sign away their land to the king.
Stanley made his way back to Europe with a sheaf of signed treaties in 1884. Meanwhile, Leopold had already begun the job of persuading first the United States and then all the major nations of Europe to recognize his claim, A master of public relations who portrayed himself as a great philanthropist, the king orchestrated successful lobbying campaigns in one country after another. He made further progress toward realizing his objective at a diplomatic conference in Berlin in 1884 and 1885. that the major European powers attended. In 1885 he proclaimed the existence of the misnamed État Indépendant du Congo, or, as it was known in English, the Congo Free State, with himself the King-Sovereign. that the major European powers attended. In later years he sometimes referred to himself as the Congo’s proprietor. It was the world’s only major colony owned by one man. Equipped with repeating rifles, cannons, and machine guns and fighting against Africans with only spears or antiquated muskets, King Leopold’s 19,000-man army (black conscripts under white officers) gradually took control of the vast territory. From the start the regime was founded on forced labor. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were put to work as porters to carry the white men’s goods, as cutters of the wood needed to fire steamboat boilers, and as laborers of all kinds. In the early years the main commodity Leopold sought was ivory. Joseph Conrad, who spent six months in the Congo in 1890, draws a memorable portrait of this rapacious trade in his novel Heart of Darkness. In the early 1890s, however, a larger source of wealth suddenly loomed. The invention of the inflatable bicycle tire, followed soon by that of the automobile tire, triggered an enormous boom in rubber. Throughout the world’s tropics people rushed to establish rubber plantations. But new rubber trees often require fifteen years of growth before they can be tapped. During that window of time those who profited were the people who owned land where rubber grew wild. No one owned more land like this than King Leopold II, for equatorial rain forest, dotted with wild rubber vines, comprised half of his Congo state.
King Leopold II’s rule over the Congo met fierce resistance. In the far south, for example, a chief named Mulume Niama led warriors of the Sanga people in a rebellion that killed one of the king’s officers.State troops pursued them, trapping him & his soldiers in a large cave. They refused to surrender, and when troops finally entered the cave three months later, they found 178 bodies. Nzansu, a chief in the region near the great Congo River rapids, led rebels who killed a hated colonial official and pillaged several state posts, although they carefully spared the homes of nearby Swedish missionaries. Nzansu’s men fought on sporadically for five years more, and no record of his fate exists.
Leopold’s most formidable enemy surfaced in Europe.A British shipping company had the monopoly on all cargo traffic between the Congo/Belgium, and every few weeks it sent to the port of Antwerp a young junior official,Edmund Dene Morel,to supervise ships arriving from Africa.
Morel noticed that when his company’s ships arrived from the Congo, they were filled to the hatch with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. When the ships turned around and steamed back to Africa, however, they carried no merchandise in exchange.
Nothing was being sent to the Congo to pay for the goods to Europe. Instead, the ships carried soldiers, and large quantities of firearms & ammunition. Standing on the dock, Morel realized that he had uncovered irrefutable proof that a forced labor system was in operation.
Morel soon quit his job and in short order turned himself into the greatest British investigative journalist of his time. For a dozen years, from 1901 to 1913, working sometimes fourteen to sixteen hours a day, he devoted his formidable energy and skill to putting the story of forced labor in King Leopold’s Congo on the world’s front pages. In Britain he founded the Congo Reform Association, and affiliated groups sprang up in the United States and other countries.
More than one thousand mass meetings to protest slave labor in the Congo were held, mostly in Britain and the United States, but also in Europe and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
The king’s colonial officials quickly set up a brutal but effective system for harvesting wild rubber. A detachment of soldiers would march into an African village and seize the women as hostages. To secure their wives’ release, the men would have to disperse into the rain forest to collect the sap of wild rubber vines. As the vines near a village were often drained dry, the men would sometimes have to walk for days to find areas where they could gather their monthly quota of rubber. As rubber prices soared, so did the quotas Discipline was harsh; reluctant military conscripts, disobedient porters, and villagers who failed to gather enough rubber all fell victim to the notorious chicotte, a whip made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges. A hundred lashes of the chicotte, a not infrequent punishment, could be fatal. Army officers and colonial officials earned bonuses based on the amount of rubber collected in areas under their control. These were an incentive for ruthless, devastating plunder. Many women hostages were raped and a significant number starved to death. Male rubber gatherers often died from exhaustion. And under such circumstances people tended to stop having children, so the birthrate plummeted as a result. With most able-bodied adults prisoners or forced laborers for several weeks out of each month, villages had few people who could plant and harvest food, or go hunting or fishing, and famine soon spread. Furthermore, huge, uncounted numbers of Congolese fled the forced labor regime, but the only refuge to which they could escape was the depths of the rain forest, where there was little food and no shelter; travelers would discover their bones years later. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Africans also died in two decades’ worth of unsuccessful uprisings against the king’s regime. An even greater toll was taken by disease: various lung and intestinal diseases, tuberculosis, smallpox, and, above all, sleeping sickness. In two ways the Congo’s rubber boom had lasting impact beyond the territory itself. First, the system of exploitation established there became a model for colonial rule in other parts of central Africa. In the newly christened Belgian Congo, however, the forced labor system did not immediately end. It was too lucrative, for the price of rubber was still high. Eventually, the price fell and wild rubber supplies began to run out, but by that time World War I had begun, and large numbers of Africans were forced to become porters, carrying supplies for Belgian military campaigns against Germany’s African colonies. Forced labor remained a major part of the Congo’s economy for many years after the war.
in 1908 King Leopold ordered the archives of his Congo state burned. But numerous surviving records from the rubber-bearing land in the adjoining French Congo, which followed the model of the Leopoldian forced labor system, also suggest a population loss there of around 50%. In 1924 the first territory-wide census, when adjusted for undercounting,placed the number of colony inhabitants at some ten million. If that figure is accurate & it represents 50 percent of what the population had been in 1880,this would suggest a loss of 10 million people. Virtually no information about the true nature of King Leopold’s Congo reached the outside world until the arrival there, in 1890,of an enterprising visitor named George Washington Williams. He was a veteran of the American Civil War, a historian,a Baptist minister, a lawyer, &the first black member of the Ohio state legislature.Wearing one of his many hats, that of a journalist,Williams expected to see the paradise of enlightened rule that Leopold had described to him in Brussels Instead,he found what he called “the Siberia of the African Continent”. Almost the only early visitor to interview Africans about their experience of the regime, he took extensive notes, and, a thousand miles up the Congo River, wrote one of the greatest documents in human rights literature, an open letter to King Leopold that is one of the important landmarks in human rights literature. Published in many American and European newspapers, it was the first comprehensive, detailed indictment of the regime and its slave labor system. Sadly, Williams, only forty-one years old, died of tuberculosis on his way home from Africa, but not before writing several additional denunciations of what he had seen in the Congo. In one of them, a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, he used a phrase that was not commonly heard again until the Nuremberg trials more than fifty years later. In the 23 years (1885-1908) Leopold II ruled the Congo he massacred 10 million Africans by cutting off their hands and genitals, flogging them to death, starving them into forced labour, holding children ransom and burning villages.
The ironic part of this story is that Leopold II committed these atrocities by not even setting foot in the Congo.
Humankind will never know even the approximate toll with any certainty,but beyond any doubt what happened in the Congo was one of the great catastrophes of modern times. On 17 December 1909, Leopold II died at Laeken, and the Belgian crown passed to Albert I, the son of Leopold’s brother, Philippe, Count of Flanders. His funeral cortege was booed by the crowd in expression of disapproval of his rule of the Congo. Leopold’s reign of exactly 44 years remains the longest in Belgian history.